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May 21, 2010

Wild Gorilla Photography Tips

Filed under: International,Photography,Rwanda,Travels — stephane @ 3:15 pm

Inquisitive youngsterGiven there is little information of what you will be faced too and how to use your camera when photographing gorillas in the wild, I decided to write down a bit of details about the recommended gear and setup to use if you end up going for a gorilla trip. Many people that were in some of our groups on the 3 days we were there were having a far from ideal lens or a Point & Shoot camera and ended up taking pictures which ended up not being usable (camera-phone-in-a-bar quality). We also saw some people ill-equipped and probably thinking they were going to see gorillas while walking on a paved road in the park. White socks, snickers, a short and a t-shit does not cut it in the thick rain forest with stinging plants, so don’t try your luck.

On a more general note, keep in mind that hiking/tracking of gorillas takes place at altitudes of 2500 to 3000 m. Paths are muddy/slippery, the forest is thick and will sometimes involve you bending low to go under some branches, moreover some sections can be very steep. Trekking in those conditions can last from 2 to 6 hours or more on the entire day. While this is far from needing athletic fitness, you need moderate/average physical fitness. If you’re doing several consecutive days, be prepared for it. For the little story, we have heard about someone booking all 8 permits for 7 consecutive days in high season (yes, that’s $28,000 of permits non-refundable) so that his daughter and himself could be alone but they gave up after 3 days because it was too tiring.


  • Poncho. Must have. It is ample and cover you well, allows you to also carry a backpack and cover your camera if it is raining and you’re not shooting. You will be leaving backpacks a few hundred meters before joining the gorillas, so do not count on carrying loads of stuff in your bag.
  • Trekking shoes (waterproof) with pocket gaiters. When it is raining the path is very muddy and you can easily have your foot in 15cm of soft mud. You will be dirty, no way around it. On desperate measures you can rent neoprene boots at the park.
  • A good trekking pant, typically the one in polyester or cotton/polyamide/elasthane, something that dries well and is not too warm. Forget the beige/whitish stuff but pick something darker like dark beige/greenish. No jeans as they will be soaked wet and get heavier.
  • “Technical” T-shirt, 100% polyester. Easy to wash, easy to dry. Comfortable to wear and does not soak water/sweat. You may want to bring a long sleeve t-shirt if you’re not wearing your sweater on top so that you don’t get scratched or stung by plants around.
  • Light polyesther sweater. Same as above.


A gorilla is black. The forest is very green. The weather is usually cloudy/misty, so this is dark conditions (and I mean very dark sometimes) and your camera will be challenged for the correct exposure. If it rains on top of it, you’re on for a rough ride. If gorillas are very active and moving a lot, you get the whole package of non ideal conditions.

You will get close to the gorillas. Around 7m in theory. In practice, gorillas do not know about this and youngsters can get pretty curious and come towards you. Before you know it and they will be 2m or less from you. You’ll be asked to retreat quickly and the guide may divert attention of the gorilla.

  • Get the sun shade of your lens on it. Even if there is no sun, it actually protects from the rain getting on your lens, and it is humid everywhere anyway, so it is a good idea to have it set
  • Get a camera that is very good at high ISOs and be prepared to push to ISO 3200. If you can do more than that with minimal noise, good for you
  • For close up, underexpose by -2/3EV to -1EV. A gorilla is a dark subject so your metering system will likely think it needs to overexpose it (this is opposite to shooting something white like the snow where the metering might be fooled and tend to underexpose). I suspect sometimes you may need to push to -2EV, but setting it to -2/3EV is a safe bet for close up.
  • Get a zoom lens with stabilization. A 70-200 f/2.8 lens is good (you can even add a 1.4x TC), so is a 70-300 f/3.5-5.6. Again, gorillas will be close.
  • Do not take a 400mm fixed or you will regret it. Foliage can be dense, you have very little leeway to move around to position yourself and if you’re in a group of 8 people, good spots will also be limited.
  • Use Aperture Priority (AE). If you shoot at f/2.8 at 200mm or close, use spot focus to know what you want to be sharp (typically the eyes)… personally I found shooting f/4 to f/7.1 with dynamic focus (or sometimes spot) being more adequate in relative close up so that the whole face is sharp, but that might be just me.
  • Use spot metering for face close up. I did all my shots using matrix metering (evaluative on Canon) and it seems it did a reasonably good job on the D700, but I regret not having done a comparison.
  • In case of doubts, you can try to bring another body with a lens such as a 24-70 to get wider shots or for the in and out of the trek. I personally found it too cumbersome and it never left the bag which was stored a few hundred meters away. It is easier to have a pocket camera.
  • Do not think you’ll be able to swap lens on location. This is hardly the place to do so
  • Forget the monopod yet the tripod… in most places this is really less than ideal, you’re in the middle of branches, bush, uneven terrain, things are constantly changing, youngsters gorillas may come toward you and you need to keep your distance, so it’s not like it is a fashion photo-shoot.
  • Know how to setup your ISO sensitivity settings and be prepared to change it. The 2nd day, youngsters were moving all over the place, so I changed it to up to ISO 3200 with minimal shutter speed of 1/400. The 3rd day I was still using this setting but as gorillas were more static, I could have easily set minimal shutter speed to 1/250 or even 1/125 and thus would have had shots with lower noise.
  • Stop shooting and enjoy the moment, gorillas have very human facial expressions and youngsters playing are pretty funny.
  • If you do not have a DSLR with video, it can be handy to have a pocket camera recording in HD and use from time to time to get some short clips.
  • Listen to the guide and do what he says. If you look like you know what you’re doing with the camera and he feels you’re a sensible individual he will think about you and get you in the best positions first, even cutting some obstructing foliage.

I hope the above will be useful information as a basis if you intend to go photograph mountain gorillas. It is a fantastic experience and is well worth it. Enjoy !


May 20, 2010

Rwanda Mountain Gorillas

Filed under: International,Rwanda,Travels — stephane @ 1:02 pm

Guhonda, Sabyinyo SilverbackI’m back from a short visit to Rwanda from May 8 to May 13. The main objective was to photographs mountains gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. I could not get more people to join for planning reasons, so only Ludovic could join the fun.

For me, it was about 20 years since I went to see gorillas in Rwanda. At that time I was around 15 and living in nearby Burundi and we came there a couple of years after Dian Fossey’s murder. Since I did not have any visual evidence but only a (fading) memory of a very close encounter I was keen to go back and organize a trip there to try to bring some shots that I will keep for the years to come.

Organizing a trip to see mountain gorillas first mean to secure permits to do so. Gorilla Permits are scarce and definitely not cheap nowadays. In Rwanda, it is possible to visit up to 7 groups of gorillas, and only a maximum of 8 people can join, which makes up to 56 permits a day available. A permit cost USD500 and allows to stay with the gorillas for only an hour. This is obviously to limit the interaction and not disturb them too much.

For this trip I wanted to secure 3 consecutive days of permits so that we could enjoy maximum photo opportunities and visit different groups. Season plays a big role in the availability of permits, most of the permits in june/july/august/september are booked up to a year in advance and while it is possible to get a spot left here and there, this is not really possible to get 3 days in a row for several people. In my case I took advantage of going during the end of the rainy season and I had a lot of choice in term of dates while I did the booking in April. The other advantage of the rainy season is that gorillas are not high up in the mountains but come lower, so treks tend to be shorter. In our case we barely had to trek an hour in the forest to see the Sabyinyo, Group 13 and Kwitonda groups. The exception seems to be the Susa group which tends to be very far away and can easily require 4-5 hours of trek at 2500-3000m in dense forest. Incidentally Susa is also the largest group, boasting up to 33 individuals.

Youngster with curious look

Overall we were pretty fortunate on our trip and had really amazing interaction, including seeing a newborn gorilla just 1-day old. On our second trek to go visit the Group 13 with 22 individuals (and plenty of youngsters playing around), we were only the 2 of us to go. Photography wise this was pretty tough due to the dark and wet conditions. In anticipation of this trip I bought a Nikon D700 as I knew my old D80 would not be enough. I was using at first a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 and then switched to a Nikon 70-300 f/3.5-5.6 VR. Most of the pictures were taken at very high ISO, up to 3200. I was also constantly having -2/3EV to make sure to not have the camera being fooled by the dark fur. During the 2nd trek, youngsters gorillas were pretty active, so cranked up minimum shutter speed to 1/400. (which I unfortunately forgot the next day while gorillas were more lethargic and thus shot at higher ISOs than what I could have). The camera did a pretty good job and I was happy I had the D700 for this.

You can view some of the gorillas picture on my Flickr Rwanda set.

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